How The Tech Industry Can Attract More Female Employees

Twitter is the latest tech company to reveal figures showing women are still underrepresented in the information and communication technology (ICT) workforce. Men make up 70% of the overall staff and women just 30%, according to a blog post by Janet Van Huysse, the company's vice president for diversity and inclusion.

Woman at computer picture from Shutterstock

But within technical jobs at the social media giant only one in ten of employees are women, she also revealed.

Lately everyone seems to be talking about attracting women to ICT. Last year, Stanford University released the She++ documentary about recruiting women to study computing that was screened in 11 countries.

Google made a big splash last month with its new venture, Made with Code, aimed at inspiring girls to try coding.

Other ventures include TechGirls, Digital Divas and RoboGals.

Why the focus on girls and women?

Twitter isn't the only ICT company in which women are vastly underrepresented.

Pinterest has also revealed that only 40% of its overall staff are women and that figure drops to just 21% of the technical workforce.

Google said in May that 30% of its overall workforce is female, although only 17% of its technical workforce. LinkedIn and Facebook have similar numbers.

Australia's gender numbers look much the same. A 2013 survey by the Australian Computer Society found that women made up 28% of all ICT workers across a range of industries, and about 18% of the technical and professional workforce within the ICT industry itself.

Why does this matter?

The ICT sector is doing well, regardless of this gender imbalance. Technology is one of the primary drivers of the modern economy and a sector where productivity is rapidly increasing.

Salaries are good and rising. Job growth has remained consistent, despite the current economic crisis. But Europe projects a deficit of at least 700,000 skilled ICT workers by 2015, and the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency projects shortfalls in most ICT occupations by 2025.

An ICT workforce without women is bad for women. Women will be left behind economically. Women will be shut out of some of the most influential positions in industry and government due to lack of relevant skills and experience. Women's interests will not be adequately represented in the products and services produced by the ICT industry.

An ICT workforce without women is bad for the ICT industry and more broadly for the economy. If women do not enter the industry, it will be difficult to meet projected demand for ICT skills.

Perhaps more importantly, diversity is good for business. According to the US National Center for Women in Technology:

Groups with greater diversity solve complex problems better and faster than do homogenous groups, and the presence of women in a group is more likely to increase the collective intelligence of the group.

Why is this happening?

University enrolments in ICT tell a clear story: women are not choosing to study courses that lead (directly) to ICT careers. Completions of ICT degrees are down across the board, approximately 30% since 2003.

The relative proportion of women has decreased as well. Only 19% of ICT enrolments in Australia in 2013 were of women, down from 25% in 2001.

This then begs the question of why women aren't studying ICT. The Victorian ICT Development Plan cites research that confirmed negative and stereotypical attitudes to ICT careers among high school students.

A Victorian study suggests that lack of early exposure to software tools impacts female students' interest in ICT.

Is there a solution?

There are general programs aimed at stimulating interest in ICT among young people, such as the Digital Careers program and the National Computer Science School.

But such programs typically attract students who are already interested in technology, rather than providing a venue to discover a new interest. As a case in point, when I offered a term-long Computer Science Unplugged enrichment class at my daughter's primary school, the students who signed up were all boys who were avid gamers (plus my daughter).

Career expos can go some way to highlighting career paths and identifying the tremendous opportunities available in technology, possibly also correcting misconceptions about the impact of off-shoring on ICT jobs.

Capturing girls' interest

So, if we can agree that we want more women in tech, how do we draw them in? Here are my suggestions, based on my personal experience as a woman and a computer scientist.

DO start early

We must engage girls in ICT long before tertiary education, preferably starting in primary school. While our young students gain basic computer literacy, the focus is too much on using computers, and not enough on innovating through them.

DO provide opportunities for girls to experience the creative side of ICT

With visual programming tools such as MIT's Scratch and Carnegie Mellon's Alice (used in New Zealand's Programming Challenge 4 girls), it's easier than ever to jump right in to building things with code. Similarly fun, hands-on projects are available for other areas of ICT.

DO highlight role models and diverse career paths

It's not easy to aspire to be part of an industry where you can't see yourself in the people already there. One of the more inspiring experiences of my career was attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, simply because it was a convention centre full of females excited about technology. Who knew there were so many of us? We'll be trying to do that here in Victoria next month, with the Go Girl, Go for IT event aimed at female high school students.

DON'T overly stereotype girls

In an attempt to target ICT activities specifically at girls, it is important not to go overboard in making those activities too "girly". US high school student Abby Wheat wrote eloquently:

Do people really think that the only way you will ever get a girl to write coding for innovative software is to stick a butterfly somewhere in there?

Google's Made with Code has been criticised for starting with a project that creates jewellery with code.

Jewellery, pink and sparkles don't appeal to all girls. More importantly, it reinforces the message that girls in ICT are outsiders and need their own special (separate) space to do ICT. Women should be drawn into the common space, not a pink-walled zone.

Now, about those stereotypes …

When young people think of ICT, they apparently imagine a nerdy hacker working in solitude in a dark room (or so my teenager tells me). This simply does not reflect the reality of the many collaborative and creative ICT workplaces.

Misconception #1: ICT requires mathematical skills

There are many aspects of ICT that don't use mathematics at all. Web programming and software engineering are much more about algorithms — a sequence of instructions that a computer must follow to solve a problem or to respond appropriately to a request.

Misconception #2: Programming is logical and sterile

Programming does require translating an idea into a logical breakdown of that idea that a computer can understand. In my experience the process of working out that logic often requires tremendous creativity. Solutions to problems are not always obvious, and there may be many different ways to solve the same problem.

Misconception #3: People who work in ICT aren't social

As technology becomes more complex, diverse project teams must work together to design and build solutions. Teams might involve a user experience expert, a graphic designer, a database expert, a domain expert and programmers with various areas of focus.

Many of these suggestions apply equally to boys and girls. But girls do seem to be disproportionately disinterested in ICT.

Targeted action is needed to help girls find rewarding career paths in ICT, and to support them to stay on those paths. The effort will pay off in innovation benefiting us all.

C'mon girls, ICT is fun!The Conversation

Karin Verspoor is Associate Professor, Department of Computing and Information Systems at University of Melbourne. She is currently a volunteer for the organising committee of Go Girl, Go for IT, presented by VicICTForWomen. She previously worked for NICTA, which hosts the Digital Careers program.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Seriously, +1 on the "don't overly stereotype girls" bit. People do that without even realising it. When I was in a lift at Microsoft one day, I overheard a couple geeks talking about an in-house SMB talk. As I'm into file systems, my ears perked up, and I eventually noted that that sounded very interesting, and asked if it was it open to other people who might want to attend. The reply: "It's not the SMB you're thinking of." (At Microsoft, there is the protocol, and then there is the small and medium business market segment. More women work in marketing than pure tech roles, so they assumed I was thinking of the latter. ;-). Me to them: "I was thinking of the file systems protocol. What were you thinking of?". We became friends, and yes, I did go to that talk and numerous others.

    And please DO NOT concentrate primarily the virtues of less technical roles, when talking to women. When people do that, those of us who ARE technical feel like we're being slotted off to something that fits us about as well as "hard engineering" fits many other women. Instead, introduce the whole spectrum of IT opportunities, and don't make it all about the stereotypical "IT for women" careers of marketing, SEO, web design, social media strategy, client account management and such. This helps not just the women, but any men who might come into contact with that conversation by hearing it, having to approve it before it happens, etc. Men need to hear not, "Women are better at the soft skills", which is how many try to sell them on hiring more women in IT, but "Many women prefer roles that use their soft skills," so that the skills of those of us who are hardcore geeks aren't discounted. Making IT inclusive isn't about splitting it into "roles men are best at" and "roles women are best at", but about making every type of role available to anyone.

    I spent the first TWENTY YEARS of my career doing semi-clerical business apps work in 4GL (add this field to this screen, squeeze this column onto this report, working on up to being the person who specified "the customer needs to add this field to this screen so that they can collect the data during registration rather than waiting to collect it later") before getting a shot at the OS internals work I loved and had trained to do in uni for 5 years. Apps work, phone support... that was what people wanted to hire me, to do. I couldn't even get seriously considered for field engineering roles because, "Customers just feel more comfortable when a man shows up." (Oh yes, it was said.) Or network engineering because people couldn't envision me pulling network cables or moving servers around, even when I told them I'd find that interesting.

    I finally broke into my preferred niche because I never gave up paying my own way to OS related conferences, even when I've sometimes felt ostracized by the 20:1 ratio of men to women at those conferences, and awkward because even with that ratio, as a not-great-looking woman, I was all but invisible to them because I was neither a "bro" nor a potential "score". I made a connection that paid off 3 or 4 years later with an interview, and I was hired on the spot -- only the second time a hiring manager was willing to talk to me long enough to find out that I wasn't a typical non-technical IT woman. (The first didn't hire me because the CEO for whom I worked in an apps job was a golf buddy. He did however tell said CEO that I was good and needed a pay rise, which was useful.) Since then, I've written embedded code, spoken internationally about my team's work, and been personally thanked for my code by VP's. Before that person took that risk, I'd encountered hundreds if not thousands who apparently couldn't see me as a peer when I tried to talk to them about professional opportunities, though.

    If you look at my peer group from uni, of the upper end CS students who pretty much ran the computer centre, there are only two of us who aren't drectors, CTOs or VPs ... and we're the two women from that group. It can't be blamed on parental leave, because between the two of us, only two years of leave were taken within a 30 year time span. To make IT more attractive to women with top echelon potential, they need to believe it's realistically possible to get there. And right now, for most of us, it isn't.

      Good for you Barb. My wife is a software engineer - and very capable at it too.
      I want you to do me a favour. Go and watch some old computer documentaries with video from the late 70s and early 80s - There are some on Silicon Valley. Now, how many women do you see in these videos? These are just people going around junk yards, programming in offices, etc.
      Even when it was fledgling, it was pretty much only guys. Was it intimidation or male numbers? *No*. In the same way that many guys aren't interested in being florists, many women just don't like IT (remember, I married a geek - so accuse me of all you like).
      I really get tired of these "ram women into roles because you must have 50% numbers" business. The pressure this places on women that aren't interested is awful. I've had the conversation with quite a few female friends social pressure from expectation - and sure enough, they often identify feelings of inadequacy of people telling them what they must think and how they must feel.
      My wife was a natural in IT. No pressure, no cajoling - it was just her. I asked her about "overwhelming numbers of men", "glass ceilings", etc - and her answer... "I was more interested in the technology ".
      My view will not be popular - but I don't buy into numbers games. Look past gender - take people for what they are and what they like. I wish most people would do this.

    It's true that IT and software development in general is primarily male dominated.

    Is that actually an issue though? I'd say no.

    Nursing in primarily female dominated.
    Construction is primarily male dominated.
    Childcare is primarily female dominated.
    Motor racing is primarily male dominated.

    It's just the nature of some industries that they tend to attract more workers from one gender over the other.

    And I don't think it's really an issue.

    Last edited 29/07/14 4:55 pm

      B-b-but my gender studies lecturer said men and women are the same!!
      Oh and patriarchy!

      Seriously though, girls that actually go with IT/software tend to think and be a lot like dudes...
      How will I ever find a good waifu who won't deathstare me for wanting a sandwich :(

    Superglue dildos to office chairs.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now